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Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2009 Jonathan Bernstein
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It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you'll do things differently.

Warren Buffett


By Jonathan Bernstein

I admit it. Despite my proud claim of being a geek, online since 1982, I denigrated Twitter for most of the past year in my one-on-one communications with business and personal contacts.

It was, I thought, "one too many" in the plethora of interpersonal communication tools available to me. I couldn't imagine processing ANY more messages than the hundreds of emails I receive daily now.

My lack of imagination was, in hindsight, deplorable.

Yes, Twitter started as an interpersonal communication tool for non-business purposes, and for many it is still just that. Then, in a manner of months, it morphed into a business-to-consumer and business-to-business communication tool. Now, it has become not just a useful part of crisis management, but an essential one.

We first saw this with in-person Tweeting1 from natural and man-made disasters (e.g., hurricanes, air crashes). Then from breaking news of all kinds, because Twitter makes it as easy as texting not just to inform one person, but to inform EVERYONE who subscribes to Twitter, including a rapidly growing number of journalists. I can pretty much guarantee you that if you're with an organization regularly covered by the media, someone at those media outlets is tracking mention of your name and/or brands on Twitter.

And get this. One of my client companies was recently sued by a State Attorney General. THE AG's OFFICE Tweeted about it! And even before then, two Twitter subscribers in Texas, one of them representing a local TV station, also Tweeted - which is how I, and then the client, first learned of the lawsuit (which hadn't yet been served).

The uses are as varied as one's hopefully reactivated imagination. You can search Twitter for terms of your choice. You can set up alerts (via TweetBeep, for example) that will notify you when specific terms show up, just like a Google alert. You can quickly determine how public opinion is trending on any given subject. And you can assess the impact on your reputation of any given crisis situation. We've been featuring some of the creative uses of Twitter at the Bernstein Crisis Management Blog.

Recommended reading: "Twitter Revolution" by Deborah Micek and Warren Whitlock, a book in which I've highlighted "I have to do this" items on multiple pages. "Twitter Revolution" is as close as you can come to "Twitter for Dummies," although I understand the latter will be published later this year. Despite my many years online, I struggled, at first, with learning how to use Twitter in a manner which fits my lifestyle and information needs. Yet that's one of the beauties of Twitter, which the authors point out - you can use some of its features, all of them, or even invent ways to Tweet which haven't been thought of before. I plan to be an innovator with regard to Twitter and crisis management. How about you?

1 Translation for the non-recovered Twit-a-phobe: when you send a message on Twitter, that's "Tweeting." Yes it sounds silly. Makes me want to follow up with "I tawt I taw a puddy tat." But there's nothing silly about its efficacy!

Postscript to my fellow Twits...I mean Tweeters...Tweetniks? Bernstein Crisis Management's most active Tweeter is our staff writer and SEO/Social Media Assistant, Erik Bernstein, aka @nomorecrisis. I tend to be less personally communicative on outbound communication, but you can reach me as @bernsteincrisis.

Five Big Mistakes Companies Make In A Crisis
By Tony Lentini

It was nine o'clock on Christmas Eve and I was waiting for the kids to drift off to sleep so Santa could visit, when my phone rang. It was a reporter.

"Is it true they're going to evacuate Bridgeport?" he asked. The North Texas city was the location of my company's largest single moneymaking asset, a natural gas processing plant.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Your gas plant is on fire and the rumor is, they're going to evacuate the entire city," the reporter explained.

"Let me check into that," I said, trying to sound as though I knew what was going on. I took his number and said I'd call back shortly.

Within about 10 minutes, I had a better picture of the situation. Yes, our gas plant was on fire. The local fire department, with assistance from others in the area, had contained the blaze to one corner of the facility but we were not out of the woods yet. No assessment of damage at this time. And neither we nor the local authorities were calling for Bridgeport's evacuation.

I called the reporter back, told him an evacuation wasn't necessary at this time, and gave him a brief update on efforts to control the fire. Then I called various company sources to gather additional facts and prepared a brief statement for the news media.

One week later, I learned that the company CEO and CFO still hadn't been informed that our biggest revenue generating facility had caught fire and would be out of commission for a number of weeks. The manager of the division that operated our gas plants tended to play his cards close to the vest and hadn't gotten around to delivering the bad news.

1: No Plan and Internal Notification System

This real-life example illustrates the first big mistake companies make in a crisis: 1) Not having a plan and a foolproof internal notification system.

A good plan should not try to anticipate every possible crisis that may befall an organization but should, at a minimum:

  • Establish a mandatory internal notification system and telephone contact list;
  • Identify the people and disciplines within your company to be included on a Crisis Management Committee;
  • Develop a contact list of the appropriate government, regulatory and public safety agencies, as well as any news organizations that may need to be notified;
  • Identify and gather details on company facilities where a mishap could have public safety implications (and ensure that evacuation plans are in place for those locations, as well as for nearby residences and businesses);
  • Provide for training of key personnel and tabletop exercises to test the plan periodically.

A mandatory notification system within your company is one of the most important components of any crisis plan. Management and the appropriate departments need to know about the crisis situation before the news media and regulators start calling.

The notification list should include contact information for representatives from the following disciplines: senior management; legal counsel; insurance/risk management; HSE (health, safety and environment); and public relations/corporate communications. It should be posted in all company locations.

For one company with numerous remote field locations and workers who operated semi-autonomously, we produced individual wallet cards with the notification list on one side and basic tips for crisis media interviews on the other. We also media-trained all field personnel.

2: Putting the Lawyers in Charge

Mistake number two is placing lawyers in charge of crisis management. That may seem counterintuitive, since many crises involve death, injury or damage to property and these things tend to generate lawsuits. But lawyers can be the very worst choice for leading a crisis management effort. That's because they are hard-wired to avoid lawsuits. As such, they're likely to shut down any communications efforts or tie them up with restrictions and legal language when candor and clarity are called for. A legal expert does need to be on the Crisis Management Team, but only as an adviser carrying equal weight with other team members.

One of the simplest and most effective methods for defusing a crisis is for the company spokesperson to express genuine concern and apologize for any disruptions, damage or loss of life. Your legal department may take a very dim view of such a course of action, fearing that it is tantamount to admitting legal responsibility, but it is almost always the right thing to do.

Former "Big Five" accounting firm Arthur Andersen relied far too much on its General Counsel during the Enron scandal when Andersen's auditors helped the rogue energy marketing company cook its books. Instead of admitting that a few bad apples had acted improperly and assisting with the investigation, Andersen circled the wagons, virtually shut down all public communication, and sealed its own doom. Don't put the lawyers in charge.

3: Shutting Out the News Media

The third big mistake companies make in a crisis is excluding the news media when the bad news goes public. Contrary to the popular saying, "No news is good news," during a crisis, any news vacuum will be filled with rumors and speculation (usually negative). At best, a company that fails to communicate looks insensitive and uncaring; at worst, it appears to have something to hide.

Years ago, I was called on to assist an oil company that had had an accidental spill in the reservoir that supplies drinking water to the City of Dallas. Reporters and local officials seeking information about the incident had been turned away at the gate to the storage facility where the oil spill occurred. After visiting the site, I countermanded the order barring reporters and instead organized a visit for news organizations and area officials to witness the cleanup. We also hired an independent water quality consultant to test for contaminants and made the results public. Instead of condemning the company for having spilled the oil in the first place, the public officials (including a member of the County Water Board) praised it for openness and for the "textbook" cleanup operation. News stories on the spill were equally positive.

On another occasion, a different company drilling in a bayou near Houma, Louisiana, had a blowout (uncontrolled natural gas flow) that ignited, causing a spectacular fire that raged for days and was visible for miles. Fortunately, nobody was killed or injured in the incident. Television reporters wanted to take a boat out to the burning drill barge to get some close-up footage. We had every right to bar them from the site, which was on company property. Instead, we had the local office manager (our crisis spokesperson) take the news crews by boat to a vantage point located a safe distance away from the fire. News organizations could-and did-videotape the fire from public lands miles away, but our transparency (and the spokesperson's skilled presentation) portrayed the company in a favorable light.

Critical to dealing effectively with the news media is preparing a statement that addresses most or all of the "Five W's" reporters try to put in the lead paragraph of every story: Who; What; When; Where and Why. Crisis planners call this a "holding statement," meaning it holds off reporters for a period while the company investigates the incident and its causes. I don't like that term because if the statement is comprehensive enough and you have a relationship with the news media and a reputation for honesty, the so-called holding statement is often the only one you have to issue. In all but the highest-profile crises, the media usually moves on to the next big thing pretty rapidly.

The key to an effective statement is to provide only what you know to be factual (anything else is speculation and to be avoided like the plague). Stay away from any discussion of causes (unless you know for certain, which is seldom the case in a developing situation), liability and insurance coverage. The first paragraph of a typical statement might read something like this:

HOUSTON, March 3, 2008-A large fire (What) broke out around 2 p.m. today (When) at XYZ Corporation's (Who) oil refinery located in Baytown (Where). The company reported all refinery personnel accounted for with no deaths or injuries. The cause of the fire (Why) is under investigation, according to company spokesperson John Smith...

Note that in this case, the "Why" is not addressed other than to say the cause is "under investigation." Reporters may ask about causes any number of times, but your job is to only present the facts, not to speculate. "Under investigation" is an acceptable response because it is the truth and represents the extent of your knowledge at the time. The sample statement above should go on to discuss any public impact, such as evacuations, road closings and possible toxic releases, the status of the fire at the time of the statement. Generally speaking, your initial statement will be relatively brief, reflecting the limited number of facts at hand in the early stages of the crisis. You will be asked additional questions. Just remember never to speculate. "I do not have that information at this time but will be happy to share it with you as soon as we know more" is another acceptable answer to a question requiring speculation.

It is also okay to say, "Our company policy is to never discuss specifics with respect to insurance coverage."

What is not acceptable is shading the truth or speculating.

This may sound like heresy, but preparing an initial statement does not necessarily mean calling the media to inform them of the difficulties your company is experiencing. If calamity occurs at a remote location and there are no public safety or regulatory considerations that require issuing a news release, you may want to wait and see if the media contacts you. This is purely a judgment call. Generally, if a situation is likely to come to the attention of the news media or has fairly widespread implications, it's a good idea to take a proactive approach and release your statement. This will also help you establish a trusting relationship with news organizations. But you don't have to alert the media every time something goes wrong.

4. Using Untrained Spokespeople

As humans, we've been communicating all our lives, so we all should be experts, right?


As the saying goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well. That's especially true when a crisis is unfolding and your organization's credibility and reputation are on the line. When you are about to hold a press briefing, you'd better be ready. That means having your facts down cold, anticipating the questions you'll be asked and knowing what your responses will be. This is definitely not the time to wing it.

There's a scene from the old Bob Newhart television series that crisis communications trainers like to use to illustrate why "winging it" is a terrible idea. Bob the psychiatrist has been invited on a television talk show and arrives completely unprepared. The hostess is attractive, sweet and reassuring as she makes small talk while Bob's makeup is applied. But when the cameras start rolling, she turns into an aggressive, probing, hostile and cynical reporter who is highly skeptical of psychiatry. She grills Bob unmercifully and his attempts to deal with the questions only make things worse. Poor Bob gets his head handed to him on the air.

If you think this can't happen in real life, think again. There is another famous crisis training clip involving then Exxon-CEO Lawrence Rawl being oh-so-gently taken over a cliff by Good Morning America co-anchor Kathleen Sullivan after the Exxon Valdez spill. He was stiff, wooden and talked in circles about "The Plan" for the cleanup. When pressed to answer questions, he accused Sullivan of creating a PR nightmare for Exxon. He was worse than ineffective.

If the chairman of one of the world's largest, most successful companies could benefit from media training, chances are that your spokesperson needs crisis communications training, too. Media training teaches you how to develop and stick to a limited number of messages that convey your company's position in a credible, empathetic manner. It provides techniques for "bridging," or briefly answering (or not answering) an interviewer's questions and then getting back to your messages. It teaches you how to anticipate virtually any question you may be asked and how to stay on message no matter what. It even teaches body language.

There are two schools of thought on crisis media training. One, I call the "Boot Camp Approach" because it takes raw recruits (in this case your executives and spokespeople) and breaks them down, then rebuilds them into flawless media machines.

The only problem with that approach is the "breaking down" process, which generally involves humiliating the trainee by subjecting him or her to a hostile interview followed by a brutal critique of all the things the unfortunate spokesperson did wrong. It makes most people never want to do another interview again, even though their interview skills improve as the training program progresses.

I prefer a kinder, gentler approach: The would-be spokesperson is still subjected to an interview, but the reporter-trainer is not hostile and the critique emphasizes positives. Negative aspects are noted, but more along the lines of: "How could you have handled that question a little better?" Most people undergoing the training are smart enough to know when they have made a mistake and are more apt to self-correct if treated in a respectful, rather than hostile, manner.

Crisis communications training should empower your spokespeople. Knowledge is power and power breeds confidence.

Don't skimp when it comes to media training.

5. No Outside Perspective

I was contracted to advise the CEO of a major company facing a serious crisis involving possible bribery of foreign officials to facilitate business in their notoriously corrupt country. The stakes were potentially enormous: hundreds of million dollars in fines; SEC sanctions; jail time for employees; loss of significant business; and severe reputational damage.

A small group of senior executives and I were brainstorming likely media questions and answers with the CEO, who dodged a question I asked that was certain to come up in media interviews. It got uncomfortable in the room as I repeated the question again and again, until the CEO finally snapped at me in anger. He immediately caught himself and apologized, adding, "That's one reason we have you here; so I don't get frustrated and blow up on some reporter asking the same question."

This real-life example illustrates just one reason why it is important to retain the services of a crisis management consultant when things go seriously wrong. He or she can speak freely whereas a regular employee might be reluctant to do so.

Other pluses include:

  • The consultant has probably handled situations similar to yours before and can put that experience to work for you;
  • An outsider looks at things differently and is therefore more likely to challenge long-held assumptions, break through groupthink mentality and offer creative solutions;
  • Many crisis communications consultants offer related services, such as media training;
  • A good consultant will have relationships with the media, government regulators, specialty legal firms and others that could prove helpful in your situation.

Surviving a Crisis

Bad things sometimes happen to good people and organizations. The trick is to deal with the crisis at hand immediately and proactively in a direct and honest manner. That sounds easy, but when you're up to your neck in alligators, you might not be thinking clearly. That's why it is imperative to have a plan, test it regularly and follow it when a crisis occurs.

The other important thing to remember in any crisis is to investigate the causes thoroughly and then correct what caused the problem in the first place. That could mean extra safety training for your employees, or equipment repairs and upgrades, or any number of things. The more serious the crisis, the more important it is for you to determine the contributing factors and fix them so the same event doesn't happen again.

Avoid the five big mistakes, fix the problem and the likelihood is that your reputation will survive its test of fire.

Tony Lenini is president of Lentini Creative Communications, Houston, TX. He has more than 30 years of public affairs experience working with some of America's largest, most successful companies. His background includes corporate communications; public relations; marketing and employee communications; government, media and international relations; print/video/audio/Web-content writing and production; advertising; and organizing, managing and publicizing political campaigns.Contact:

Bernstein Blogging Update

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  • Find your Audience
  • Saving Face the Twitter Way
  • When the Twit Hits the Fan
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Keeping the Wolves at Bay 3.0 Reviewed

"Keeping the Wolves at Bay" is much more than another media training guide - it is perhaps one of the most concise, insightful, useful and savvy guides to strategic thinking about reputation issues available.

Gerald Baron
Founder & CEO of PIER System and host of

"It's like a Swiss Army knife -- lots of cool tools in a compact package. In case of emergency, grab this."

Steven R. Van Hook, PhD
Publisher, About Public Relations

In addition to individual and business usage, the manual is now being required as a textbook at Seton Hall University, Grand Canyon University, and Singapore Management University, amongst others. It is available in both PDF and hard copy formats at, with reseller arrangements available for collegiate bookstores.

Jonathan Bernstein also offers on-site media training worldwide, using this manual as the basis for training. Write to

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Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.,, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to


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